A passport to India

"Slumdog Millionaire'

3 minute read
Anyone who has truly explored the third world knows the dusty haze, cast over the never-ending slums; the noise of people and machinery, and nature not completely subdued; the smell of Diesel engines from the '80s combined with meat roasting on sidewalk stands combined with standing sewer water, combined with (especially since it's often in the tropics) sweat. I've never been to India, but after watching Slumdog Millionaire, I feel as if my passport has been stamped. The film feels very realistic, but at the same time, it's also a fairy tale.

Orphan boy Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) rises from the rank of beggar to millionaire. More important than the fame and fortune, though, is the love of his life Latika (Freida Pinto), whom he has known since childhood. Slumdog has all the makings of a traditional classic: love lost and found, coming of age, evil characters, good characters, and one character who passes from one side to the other.

Yet at the same time, the cinematography is innovative, as is the screenplay, which converges story lines that resolve into one only in the finale. Flashbacks are woven into the script so well that they become an indispensable element of the plot. The time lines interact and affect one another so that the storytelling perspective becomes as much a part of the plot as the on-screen action, much in the same way that 2006's Oscar-winning Crash rethought storytelling style.

India's poverty in all its ugly glory

The film also handles the "India" element very well. That uniquely colorful, spicy, sweltering environment— the accents, the crowdedness, the rising entrepreneurial spirit— all are presented as a fact of life, yet they still exert visceral power. India's prevalent poverty is exposed in its terrible and ugly glory. But ironically, the destitution is shown through a lively glow and an energetic, positive speed that permeates the whole movie.

Indian poverty is a subject that's often ignored in Bollywood. But here the subject is broached without becoming a downer. Bollywood's traditional element— the obligatory dance number, the somewhat formulaic love story, the melodrama— are all invoked. But the film is clearly aimed at Western audiences, and aside from presenting India in a postmodern spotlight, it also raises universal questions about the interactions of fate, luck, knowledge, experience and determination.

Playing it too cool?

I still can't decide if Patel, the film's star, brilliantly underplays his part, or if I want him to display a wider repertoire of emotions. For a large majority of the movie, he plays it cool: somewhere between deer-in-the-headlights and unfazed stoic hero. This posture works for the single-minded devotion of his character Jamal, but would be more convincing if his personality displayed greater variety.

Jamal as a little boy (Azharuddin Ismail) is charming and adorable in his young maturity. He is a shining star throughout the movie. Apparently, Ismail's family— genuine slum residents— were paid only $2,500 for his major role in a film that blew past everyone's expectations, well on its way to garnering $100 million-plus. Hopefully this situation will be rectified.

Slumdog Millionaire has much to offer for everyone in the family, and it does so with fresh techniques. It exposes a social problem without dwelling on the problem. It tells an old story in a rhythm so exciting that you feel as if you've never heard it before. It's entertaining, thrilling and thought provoking. It's modern and traditional at the same time. For all these reasons, it's my pick to win this year's "Best Picture" Oscar.

What, When, Where

Slumdog Millionaire. A film directed by Danny Boyle. At the Ritz East, Second St. 125 Sansom St. (215) 925-7900 or www.imdb.com/title/tt1010048.

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